An issue related to Innocent’s post on environmental rights and Michele’s on “climate refugees” is the question of to what extent does climate change affect human rights in general? This is a question which is undergoing a lot of scrutiny not least since the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was, in 2008, charged with undertaking a study into the relationship between human rights and climate change by the Human Rights Council and since a group of Inuit citizens filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, in 2005, alleging that the United States had violated a series of human rights by not taking steps to curb emission of greenhouse gasses (petition in full length available here).
While it is clear that climate change has the potential to severely impact on several human rights, such as, for example, the right to life or the right to property, and climate changes represents a threat to the enjoyment of such rights, it is not clear that climate change necessarily violates the said rights. This is down to a series of related problems of causation as well as the fact that most of the effects of climate change are, at least at this point, future events which human rights can do little to address. Moreover, prospective litigants will face serious problems proving that, as e.g. the Inuits tried, one particular act or omission attributable to State actor is linked to a specific incident or harm. This is, however, not the end of the link between human rights and climate change. Far from it. For instance, human rights law, especially under the ECHR, gives rise to a number of procedural obligations on the State, such as access to environmental information and judicial review, which may all be of relevance to climate change (see for instance Taşkin and others v. Turkey well as here). Moreover, these obligations are equally applicable to States when they seek to implement measures in an attempt to address climate change. A number of related questions remain though. For example, it may be called into question whether human rights as such have anything to add to the climate change debate. Proponents will argue that human rights can add a human face to a discussion which is often focused on technicalities and States thus putting forward a moral argument for addressing emissions. Another question is whether the “human rights community”, i.e. campaigners, lawyers and NGOs, are interested in taking on climate change as a problem when they already seem to have a full plate of cases to take. In other words, what are the strategic implications?
Clearly this is a problem which needs more research and thinking. For what it is worth, readers might find the following interesting if they would like to study the matter further. Prof. Knox, of Wake Forest Law School, has a really good piece coming out soon with Virginia Journal of International Law on the topic, which covers the various questions excellently and Edward Elgar is about to launch a new peer-reviewed journal dedicated to human rights and the environment (first issue to come out early next year) with the second issue dedicated to climate change and human rights (incidentally I will have a piece coming out in that issue on the topic).